Let’s start with a TLDR, because this may get a little rant-y and spoiler-y, and I appreciate some of our readers don’t have time for all that; if you enjoyed the first film, Now You See Me 2 is a fine enough sequel. Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan make excellent additions to the cast and both give solid performances, there are some magical moments that will leave you wondering how the hell they did it, and if you’re a fan of twists, this may just be perfect for you. Plus, so help me, I enjoy watching Mark Ruffalo doing that exasperated expression he does, and there’s plenty of that. Ultimately, though, there were some difficulties in the narrative / over-reliance on editing and tired devices that made it just not the film for me.
If you haven’t seen the first film, don’t worry; before the opening credits we’re treated to a flashback as Child!Dylan watches his father attempt the escape act that was his thirty-something years motivation for his actions in the first film. Covering the event live is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) a skeptic and Discovery Channel style debunker. As the three hundred seconds the trick should have taken expire, it rapidly becomes apparent that things have gone disasterously wrong.
Jump to the present day, and Thaddeus sit in a jail cell, regaling us via webcam with the events of the first film. He of course delivers a cryptic message to those responsible for his predicament, The Four Horsemen, that eventually they’ll get what’s coming to them. It’s vague enough that you could interpret it in SO VERY MANY WAYS. Quote, “Are you listening, horsemen? You will get what’s coming to you. In ways you can’t expect.”
It’s around a year after The Four Horsemen’s spectacular disappearance, and self-appointed leader J. Daniel Atlas (Jessie Eisenberg) is a bit unhappy with his lot. He’s impatient for the action promised by Dylan (Mark Ruffalo); it’s been a year of waiting, and frankly he’s fed up and bored. Following a meeting with The Eye (read, “Illuminati”, it’s basically interchangeable) in which he is told to stay the course, events are in motion. He returns to his apartment to discover Lula (Lizzy Caplan), a quite accomplished magician in her own right, who has the recurring noodle incident joke about some trick she performed eight years ago.
Pause for a moment, because it’s nice she’s got backstory, but what started as an admittedly pretty weak “bit” to begin with is repeated to the point that it becomes almost grating, as within five seconds of her being introduced to anyone new, you can practically mime along as they echo some variation of “didn’t you do that thing?”/ “it was eight years ago!”.
Daniel is soon summoned by Dylan, and reunites with Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson); Jack faked his death in the last film, and has apparently spent the last year or so teaching Merrit card tricks, which leads to a cute little bonding moment between the two as it becomes obvious Merrit has learnt NOTHING. Merrit has in turn been trying to teach him hypnosis, with similar results.
Dylan has recruited Lula to be new Horseman, following the departure of Henley in the year that was. There’s a couple of jokes here about her being the designated girl, it’s continually hand-waved that Henley left because of Daniel’s controlling attitude (in real life, Isla Fisher was unable to to reprise her role due to her pregnancy)…and then we all just accept it and move on, because Lizzy Caplan.
The plan is this; unethical technology mogul Owen Case (Ben Lamb) has installed a backdoor in a new mobile phone OS that will allow him to sell private information on the black market, and, much like their work with Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) in the first film, they’re going to expose him, get a little revenge, yadda yadda. We’re only a short while in, and if the plan goes off perfectly it’s going to be a very short film, so guess what happens? Yes, just as it looks like they’re going to get away with it, the plan falls apart. Spectacularly.
Dylan is unmasked as the fifth horseman, and in addition to Jack being revealed as very much alive, they’re forced to flee. However something goes peculiarly wrong during the horsemen’s flight, and instead of meeting Dylan at the rendezvous point, the gang find themselves in Macau, and at the mercy of Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), a reclusive tech prodigy assumed – like Jack was – to be dead. Mabry is himself a little bit of a magician, but with technology as his forte. Mabry was working with Case, who was apparently about to back-stab him and sell “…the key to every computer system on the planet” to the highest bidder.
Walter’s also been playing the corporate world like an octopus from the shadows, and when Tressler went down, he lost a lot of money, so he’s none to happy with the horsemen. So, with the option of asylum in Macau, and the threat of death looming over them, tasks the horsemen with stealing the chip. And we’re off. Daniel reluctantly accepts, reasoning that if he can get the chip to The Eye they can get them out of this mess, and it’ll also elevate his standing, the disgraced Dylan – with the help of Thaddeus – tries to track down the horsemen and find out just exactly what it going on, Harry Potter cackles sociopathically, and I reach for another handful of popcorn.
Now, I’m as much a fan of a good twist ending, or batman gambit as the next man, but they’re tricky; you do it right, you’re a defining moment for a generation (think The Usual Suspects), or even a good bit of cheeky fun (think that smug grin Clooney does in Ocean’s Eleven), do it wrong and you’re M. Night Shyamalan. And I’m getting very tired of “Little does he know that I know that he knows that I know, etc” being used as an excuse for bad writing / story tellling.
The film suffers from an overdose of gambit on top of gambit on top of gambit that makes it insanely hard for me to care about any of the characters because there’s no actual conflict because, guess what, it’s just another level of someone’s plan. You can’t tell me everyone is clever enough to plan for exactly every contingency, but also if you tell me they’re brilliant improvisers to the level they’re depicted, I will lose all respect for you.
There’s one particular fight scene that – while undeniably cool to watch – when you sit down and think about it, is utterly ridiculous. Dylan has tracked down Daniel, and they’re confronted by Walter and a bevy of armed goons. Dylan takes them on, giving Daniel the chance to escape, using… I’m guessing his FBI training, and a mixture of improvised illusions that would suggest he’s memorised every single thing about the layout of the market before setting foot in it, and parkor. Cool to watch, but no, no, there is no way that fight is ever going to happen.
They try to do the, “have you been paying attention?” bit from The Prestige, but it’s not subtle enough – hey! Look at the Chekov’s Gun! You guys see it? We’ll come back to it later! – and what’s meant to be the big surprise ending is just… disappointing. And the magic seemed only possible through a methodology Mabry would approve of; the magic of technology, specifically editing and VFX.
Having said all that, if you can switch your brain off and just enjoy the ride, it’s a reasonable bit of fun. I just find Gob from Arrested Development a more convincing magician. I also don’t get why everyone has to be David Blaine these days.